WHEN ULTAN Conlon emerged from the recording studio in Burbank, California, on the final day of sessions for what would become his fourth album, he could have had no idea of the world into which it would be released.
There’s A Waltz, which came out in mid-April, arrived in an Ireland under lockdown and the world in the grip of a flu pandemic. Yet despite not being able to tour to promote the album, the Loughrea singer-songwriter is having his most successful year yet - another instance of the arts, and an artist, showing resilience in a time of crisis.
“When the lockdown happened I was overwhelmed by the pandemic and concern around the common good, it was only afterwards I thought, ‘I’ve an album coming out!’” Ultan tells me over the phone, during our Thursday afternoon interview. “I thought, will I pull it back and wait? But I'd had the PR paid for, so I thought I’d let it out, but I wasn’t optimistic.”
Ultan’s fears, though reasonable, proved unfounded. There’s A Waltz was praised by Hotpress for its “songs of substance told with intelligence and wry observation”; The Sunday Times declared it “a record that revels in the beauty of the simple and unspectacular'; and it became Album of The Week on Lyric FM’s Marty In The Morning. Despite all the obstacles thrown in its way, Ultan still “broke new ground” with the album reaching his widest audience to date.
'You have to hand it to musicians, how innovative they have become through all this. It’s hard to keep us down'
“The online sales have grown bigger than ever, and it’s down to the lockdown,” Ultan says. “RTÉ has been a great support. Marty Whelan was playing it all last week. Each evening I sit in front of the phone and perform a song, and people are tuning in, and commenting, and sending lovely messages.
“From all that I get orders for CD and vinyl copies of the album. I’ve been up and down to the post office sending them out. Everyday I post out an album is a win. It’s such a good feeling to put it in an envelope and send it off. It’s all a great lift for morale. I have thought, if I went on tour now, my gigs would all be sold out, but there’s the other side. Sit tight, and when we come out of this, there’s a dedicated fan base there.”
Indeed Ultan pays tribute to the resilience his fellow musicians have shown during the crisis. “You have to hand it to musicians, how innovative they have become in getting their music out there through all this, how they’ve made the change. It’s hard to keep us down.”
From Loughrea to LA
There’s A Waltz was produced by the Grammy Award winning American folk artist Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek ), with Ultan accompanied by drummer Don Heffington (Bob Dylan ), bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Iron and Wine, Neil Diamond, kd lang ), fiddle player Gabe Witcher (Paul Simon, Beck ), as well as Sara Watkins on backing vocals (Nickel Creek ). How did he find himself in such august company?
“It was just one of those strange threads that lead you to other things,” Ultan says. “I did this corporate gig in Moran’s Of The Weir for about 20 stockbrokers, and later the guy who organised it said, ‘Bring your PA outside, it’s sunny’, so I had to set up and perform outside, but there was a lady who was sitting at one of the tables. Afterwards she came over to me and said, ‘I really like your voice’ so I gave her a copy of my first album.”
That woman was the screenwriter and film producer Fiona Graham. She had written, along with Konrad Begg, the script for the feature film Seven Songs For Amy, and eventually she asked Ultan to compose its soundtrack. “I was working for about six months on that film doing the score,” Ultan says. “She took me to LA and the Cannes Film Festival, it opened a lot of doors for me.”
One of those doors was a lasting friendship with the film’s lead actor Sean Maguire (Once Upon A Time, The Magicians ), who Ultan has continued to visit regularly in LA. While there he also took the time to play some shows, including at The Largo, a leading live venue where The Watkins Family Hour has a monthly residency.
Sean Watkins was impressed by what he heard from the Loghreea man, and a new friendship - and a powerful ally - ensued. Ahead of his last visit to LA, Ultan emailed Sean, asking if there was any chance of some recording dates. To his surprise Watkins said ‘Yes’, and Ultan found himself surrounded by some of America’s leading roots/folk session musicians.
'It’s only when I got back to east Galway, and thinking about it, that I had that ‘pinch me, did that happen?’ feeling'
“I remember at one point, Sebastian Steinberg started talking about ‘that session I did with Neil Diamond…’ When there is someone like that around, that did make me go ‘Wow…’ but I didn’t let it overwhelm me. These are really good people and excellent players.
"They are successful because they are great musicians, but also because of their temperament. There is no ego around. Everyone plays as a team. It goes a long way in this game. You have to play as a group. It’s only when I got back to east Galway, and thinking about it, that I had that ‘pinch me, did that happen?’ feeling. It’s much nicer to have that at home than when you are there.”
Music that resonates
The result is an intimate, deeply honest, folk and roots tinged singer-songwriter album, but underlying the gentleness is a foundation built on strength of character and a writer hitting the best form of his life. Among the many stand-out tracks is the closer, 'A Landslide', a song all about longing for connection - a theme which has taken on a whole new relevance since the lockdown.
'I like the idea of creating an upbeat album. Can I do it? I will certainly aim for it'
“A lot of people have contacted me about that song,” says Ultan. “It's the most played track on the album on Spotify, which means people are listening to the end. I live in the countryside, I live in an isolated place, and I think that’s why it resonates.”
‘Sparks Of The Divine’, the single, also resonates with a sense of optimism, a quality much needed in the current climate. “I do worry for the greater good, I do worry about what will happen,” says Ultan, “but I remain optimistic. I’m going to write more songs in that mode. I like the idea of creating an upbeat album. It’s as graft thing. Can I do it? I will certainly aim for it.”
To listen to and to buy Ultan’s music, go to http://ultanconlon.com.